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Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Chameleons: Auffuhrung In Berlin

AUFFÜHRUNG IN BERLIN (1983; 1993)

1) Less Than Human; 2) Paper Tigers; 3) Monkeyland; 4) Thursday's Child; 5) Second Skin; 6) Pleasure And Pain; 7) Singing Rule Britannia; 8) Perfume Garden; 9) One Flesh; 10) In Shreds; 11) Splitting In Two.

Out of all the official and semi-official archival live albums associated with The Chameleons, this is the one that usually gets the highest praise, and it is easy to see why. Recorded at Berlin's Loft venue shortly before the release of Script Of The Bridge, this is a surprisingly high quality product (lead guitars and rhythm section sound fabulous, with near-ideal separation), and, just as it was with the Peel sessions, you get to hear classic early high-energy Chameleons without the production excesses of their studio records (namely, good drums).

Half of the setlist predictably consists of Script Of The Bridge tunes; the rest is a preview of several songs from What Does Anything..., plus a few non-album numbers like ʽLess Than Humanʼ — and only one hitherto unheard song, ʽSplitting In Twoʼ, an Alternative TV cover that they often used to finish their shows in the early days. (Admittedly, it does not sound seriously differently from the typical fast-paced Chameleons song.)

Since the show was professionally recorded, and the band's interactions with the audience are minimal, there are hardly any substantial differences between this record and The Peel Sessions, except for (quite fortuitous) discrepancies in the setlists, but I guess there is something to be said about the wholesome experience of a single show. My main gripe is that neither of the two has ʽUp The Down Escalatorʼ, still arguably the single greatest Chameleons song in the «upbeat» mode — not clear what it was that made them avoid that one so much. Too cheerful for public consumption? Anyway, be sure to grab this one, if only for the excellent sound quality.

Chicago: Chicago V

CHICAGO V (1972)

1) A Hit By Varèse; 2) All Is Well; 3) Now That You've Gone; 4) Dialogue, Pt. 1; 5) Dialogue, Pt. 2; 6) While The City Sleeps; 7) Saturday In The Park; 8) State Of The Union; 9) Goodbye; 10) Alma Mater.

It feels weird to state that, after three sprawling, excessive, bombastic, narcissistic double LPs in a row, Chicago's first compact, restrained, «humble» single LP feels a little... disappointing. In terms of style, Chicago V is not at all a departure from the band's classic sound: still firmly in the mildly-experimental jazz-rock ballpark, with tasteful touches of funk, soul, and pop and no signs of cheap sentimentality. It was also an unexpected commercial mega-hit, taking them to the top of the US charts for the first time — see, all it took was to lower the cost from double to single vinyl to get things going — and, heck, it may have been the only album ever with the name Varèse in one of the song titles to achieve such popularity with the average buyer.

Yet, strange enough, I have always found it fairly hard to get into it. On the surface, it's all good: there's brave sonic experimentation (ʽA Hit By Varèseʼ could not have not contained any, right?), multi-part mini-suites merging jazz, funk, and R&B like there was no tomorrow (ʽNow That You've Goneʼ), a couple vehicles for Kath's guitar fireworks (ʽDialogueʼ), bombastic anthems (ʽState Of The Unionʼ), and a catchy pop single (ʽSaturday In The Parkʼ). However, somehow much, if not most of this, ends up sounding like rather limp background muzak to my ears, with few moments forcing you to pay attention.

It is not quite clear what happened, but I guess everybody is entitled to a bit of burnout after three double albums in a row. Even the catchy pop single, first time ever in Chicago history so far, does the unexplainable — straightforwardly rips off Paul McCartney's ʽYou Won't See Meʼ for its base melody, though the overall mood of the piece is inverted, so that instead of wistful melancholy we have tepid, toothless, furry-cuddly excitement (it was reportedly inspired by a walk Lamm took through Central Park — as somebody who really enjoys a good walk through Central Park whenever I am in the neighborhood, I can certainly relate, but there is no guarantee that the feeling will necessarily translate to music). The song is not necessarily worse than any of Lamm's previous optimistic, sunny pop singles, but the direct lifting of the chords is jarring: truly, there is just no need to shove their «poor man's Beatles» side so directly in our faces.

As for the bluesier / jazzier / funkier stuff, it just sort of sits there. None of these tracks seem to have the same level of creative ambition, nor the same amount of energy and passion as the earlier records — compared to the I-II-III punch, the band sounds tired (which they probably were) and out of ideas. Even the ʽVarèseʼ thing, as nominally experimental and «anti-commer­cial» as it is, seems more like a desperately self-conscious gesture — "okay, boys, this doesn't really work out so well, let's pull ourselves together and concoct something that Frank Zappa could be proud of and put it out front, so no piece of shit critic can lay a finger on us!" It is not awful, it just lacks a sense of purpose, because the album as a whole is not in the avantgarde plane of things, and there does not seem to be much of a plan behind the music.

Things get a little better with ʽDialogueʼ, a two-part suite with Kath's best lead guitar parts on the album and the whole band whipping itself up into a socially conscious frenzy ("we can make it happen, we can change the world now") — and even so, the experience seems perfunctory, not even on the level of passion that you could see on ʽIt Better End Soonʼ. At least Kath's work gives it an edge over the utterly dull six minutes of ʽState Of The Unionʼ, a paralytic funky monster, with Cetera stubbornly clinging to the same bass figure and the brass section huffing and puffing at the brick house of boredom.

Perhaps most of the blame for this should be laid upon Lamm, singlehandedly credited for eight out of ten tracks on the album; but the problem is that everybody, including simple players, seems tired and sparkless — even Pankow's ʽNow That You've Goneʼ is a rather stereotypical piece of R&B, whose formulaically desperate lyrics ("how can I go on in emptiness, feeling so alone every day") would feel strangely at odds with the brash liveliness of the arrangement, were not this liveliness itself so stiff and robotic. Finally, Kath ends things with ʽAlma Materʼ, a bland, preachy piano ballad that is oh so not saved by its ponderous lyrics ("we must not lose control / of the possibility of the discovery / that would let everybody see / that we were just meant to be" — what is this, Hegel for dummies?).

As subjective as this impression truly is — I doubt that even a professional musicologist could have transparently described the significant differences between I-II-III and V, since they transcend basic melody and harmony — it leaves me with no choice but to give the album a decisive thumbs down, and mark it as the beginning of the decline: most importantly, it shows that Chicago eventually perished as a respectable act not because it had betrayed its winning formula for sap and pap, but precisely because it drifted towards sap and pap upon becoming incapable of maintaining that formula. «Objectivists» who judge Chicago on a two-basket basis («jazz-rocky Chicago = good, sentimental poppy Chicago = bad») will probably want to disagree, but you'd really, really have to love jazz-rocky Chicago in order to allow Chicago V all the time it takes to grow on you and lure you in with alleged subtle nuances.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

The Chambers Brothers: Love, Peace & Happiness

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: LOVE, PEACE AND HAPPINESS (1969)

1) Have A Little Faith; 2) Let's Do It; 3) To Love Somebody; 4) If You Want Me To; 5) Wake Up; 6) Love, Peace & Happiness; 7) Wade In The Water; 8) Everybody Needs Somebody; 9) I Can't Turn You Loose; 10) People Get Ready; 11) Bang Bang; 12) You're So Fine; 13) Undecided / Love! Love! Love!.

By 1969, it was clear that The Chambers Brothers had become indoctrinated slaves to their formula of success — but it was also clear that it did not work so well on its own and that light­ning couldn't be bothered to strike twice in the exact same way. So what could be the remedy? Columbia Records decided to make it a double album — a studio LP, recreating the structures of vibes of the previous two, and a live LP (recorded at the Fillmore East, no less) that would hearken back to the boys' oldest days, even throwing in another live version of ʽPeople Get Readyʼ because, you know, nobody can withstand a good take on ʽPeople Get Readyʼ.

That said, I should stress that the studio LP, at least, is a slight improvement this time around. The obligatory big psychedelic jam at the end (title track) is now presented in the form of a slow blues-rock romp with surprisingly threatening (for a song with such a name) backing vocals and some drawn-out, simplistic, but tense and shrill wah-wah guitar solos. Midway through, the groove dies down, giving ground to a crescendo, out of which emerges a much funkier pattern; but all the movements are united by a single vibe that is actually closer to ʽGimme Shelterʼ than to anything having to do with love, peace and happiness — either somebody duped these guys or they, too, were feeling that «despair» was gradually replacing «love» as the chief vibe of the times. Perhaps boring drum solos or primitive escapades with volume controls do not do all that much for enhancing that vibe, but on the whole it is an interesting transition from light to dark­ness that, in its own way, preceeds a similar transformation that would happen to Sly & The Family Stone in between 1969 and 1970.

The shorter songs on the first side are not as bitter, divided between soulful ballads (including a rather perfunctory rendition of the Bee Gees' ʽTo Love Somebodyʼ) and funky grooves, at least one of which features a surprisingly melodic and memorable bassline (ʽLet's Do Itʼ); ʽWake Upʼ concludes the sequence with a short and fun mix of pop-rock and gospel overdrive, although waking you up this way, only to plunge you into the gloomy shuffle of ʽLove, Peace & Happi­nessʼ might be a pretty inefficient way to allocate your resources. Nevertheless, the overall level of energy is higher than last time around, and the decision to stay away from acoustic folk is a wise one — loud rave-ups work better for these guys.

The live half, unfortunately, is very hit and miss. The central (actually, the first) piece is another long bluesy groove, ʽWade In The Waterʼ, gruff, repetitive, and with too much emphasis on the drums — not to mention the surprisingly low quality of recording for Fillmore East (almost making me suspect that the brothers were always lugging around their own recording equipment, and that they had not bothered upgrading its shitty quality since 1965). Another drawn-out piece, ʽBang Bangʼ, is a silly vocal gimmick loosely based on the ʽLouie Louieʼ riff: much to the band's honor, they seem to be capable to get that demanding Fillmore East hippie audience on its feet with the thing, but in retrospect, this seems somewhat embarrassingly Sha-Na-Na-ish. In the end, the live part of the record is about as disappointing as that Now! album — and, more importantly, shows that the brothers' live act was getting even more stale at the time than their studio activities. In other words, all of this is completely passable, though occasionally fun.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Allen Toussaint: Connected

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: CONNECTED (1996)

1) Pure Uncut Love; 2) Do The Do; 3) Computer Lady; 4) Get Out Of My Life, Woman; 5) We're All Connected; 6) Sweet Dreams; 7) Funky Bars; 8) Ahya; 9) If I Leave; 10) Aign Nyee; 11) In Your Love; 12) Oh My; 13) All Of It; 14) Wrong Number; 15) Rolling With The Punches.

Sooner or later, as long as he stayed alive that long, Toussaint must have had that one tasteful and enjoyable comeback — and the Nineties, with all their artistic health benefits for Eighties' sur­vivors, finally saw him return to a stable and perfectly normal recording career. His first record in almost ten years, and his first good record since Southern Nights, more than twenty years before, Connected is surprisingly long: a fifteen-song, hour-long marathon, presenting not only a lot of stuff that he must have accumulated throughout that time, but also a few inventive re-recordings, such as the instrumental version of ʽGet Out Of My Life, Womanʼ. The album may have sold pitifully and remained noticed only among the small fanclub of knowledgeable admirers, but it was clearly recorded as a gesture of strength and vitality.

It is not exactly at the level of inventiveness displayed in Southern Nights, and it shows no traces of the insane energy that populated his instrumental output in the Fifties, but the old man still pulls out most of his old tricks — his knowledge of cool pop hooks, exciting R&B grooves, border genre conventions, charisma, and humor. When he tries to go too modern, he may stumble on occasion: ʽComputer Ladyʼ, for instance, is an attempt to throw some puns around modern computer terminology — an attempt that probably sounded crude and silly already in 1996, but as of 2017, has probably become as incomprehensible to modern generations as all those old blues innuendos from the 1920s ("when she described herself to me, my floppy overheated" and "keep my modem hot, computer lady" are two particularly telling examples). Musically, there are a few boring adult contemporary ballads here (ʽSweet Dreamsʼ) that sound like any generic adult con­temporary ballad from that decade, although Toussaint's calm, friendly, never overstraining voice always makes even his most generic material listenable.

But on the whole, Connected is a fun ride from the opening bars of the funky pop opener ʽPure Uncut Loveʼ to the last bars of the funky instrumental conclusion of ʽRolling With The Punchesʼ. It is hard to name «highlights», but «standout» tracks would probably include ʽWe're All Con­nectedʼ, a joyful singalong about, uh, how we are all connected and shit; ʽAhyaʼ and ʽAign Nyeeʼ, where he lends his piano-playing talents to promote African rhythms and melodies; and ʽIn Your Loveʼ, whose lightly distorted vocals are a clear nostalgic reference to ʽSouthern Nightsʼ, though, as everything second-hand, there is no fear of this song ever overriding the legacy of its genius predecessor. Even these «standouts», though, are barely noticeable in the general fray.

As it always is with Toussaint, the backing band is given directions to keep things tight and pro­fessional, but not get over their heads or anything — instrumental tracks such as ʽFunky Barsʼ or ʽAll Of Itʼ roll steady, with not a single instrument ever getting to show off, oozing self-confi­dence and taste, but not a tremendous lot of adrenaline-heavy excitement. That is exactly what ought to be expected, though, if you know Toussaint at all, and it is more about collective discip­line and composing than about maniacal improvisation: not my favorite schtick of all the schticks there are, but respectable and enjoyable all the same — and, at the very least, cleansing away the horrendous debacle of Mr. Mardi Gras (see, there is a way to make authentic New Orleanian music without having to refer to Fat Tuesday in every song). And there is also a great benefit from having a voice as relatively weak, if charming and friendly, as Toussaint's — it means that it carries the exact same level of charisma in 1996 as it did in 1970, not an ounce less. With all these subtle nuances, Connected inevitably grows upon you, very slowly but very steady, with each ensuing listen, and deserves a grateful thumbs up.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Hollies: Butterfly

THE HOLLIES: BUTTERFLY (1967)

1) Dear Eloise; 2) Away Away Away; 3) Maker; 4) Pegasus; 5) Would You Believe?; 6) Wishyouawish; 7) Postcard; 8) Charlie And Fred; 9) Try It; 10) Elevated Observations?; 11) Step Inside; 12) Butterfly.

The Hollies' second attempt at integrating into the psychedelic age was far more convincing than their first one — but more like, in retrospect. By the time the album came out, in late 1967, the world of popular music had completed the revolution, and Butterfly was their first album since 1964 to not chart at all, though, admittedly, this may have had more to do with the lack of a solid accompanying single. It was preceded by ʽKing Midas In Reverseʼ, one of Graham Nash's most ambitious compositions, very clearly influenced by The Beatles' work with orchestration and, in a way, perhaps also back-influencing The Beatles themselves (for instance, the use of cello here is very similar to ʽI Am The Walrusʼ, though the latter song postdated ʽKing Midasʼ). However, despite the complexity of the psychedelic arrangement, the chorus of the song is rather bland and repetitive, essentially a one-liner, and certainly lacks the incendiary capacity of their classic singles — somehow, in between the psychedelic overtones and the elements of social critique, the song missed its chance to become an anthem in either of the two styles.

Regardless, it did mark a brief period of Nash's ascension as the primary creative force for The Hollies — an artistic test of sorts, which he ultimately failed on the commercial level, but pro­bably not on the critical one. Later, as part of Crosby, Stills, & Nash, he would be contented with the role of the «whimsical pop figure» among the three, but in those Butterfly days, he was the king of experimentation, bringing in baroque, Indian, and psychedelic influences a-plenty; still in a rather whimsical manner, of course, but the «innocent childishness» of the approach could be actually seen as reverse maturity in 1967, and he was certainly not alone in that (Donovan, any­body?). In any case, compared to Evolution, this album actually does represent a fairly strong pattern of evolution: catchier hooks and more ambitious and diverse arrangements. By all means, this is the band's direct answer to Sgt. Pepper, something that they were quite entitled to given their presence at the very same Abbey Road Studios, and it never ever bothered me that the final result, quite predictably, could at best pass for Sgt. Pepper's little brother, enviously peering into the treasure-filled drawers of the elder sibling. The little brother still has a good heart.

For all I know, all of the songs but two here could be written by Graham — he takes exclusive credits for four songs and is co-credited for another six. The only solo Clarke title is the lush orchestrated power ballad ʽWould You Believe?ʼ, possibly an earlier outtake (since, after all, the album Would You Believe came out almost two years prior to this); meanwhile, the Hicks-written-and-sung kiddie lullaby ʽPegasusʼ is even more trite than the worst of Graham's stuff, culminating in a single-line chorus ("I'm Pegasus, the flying horse") that probably would not make it past the Sesame Street filter — and is more fit for a garden bunny than a flying horse, anyway. This is a strong contrast with the way it used to be, when all the credits were equally distributed between the three principal songwriters, indicative of the rift that had already begun to pull them apart — but it does make me happy that it saved Nash the trouble of sharing the credits for ʽPegasusʼ, one of the donwright silliest things in the band's catalog.

But apart from the occasional Hicks blunder, Butterfly starts and ends equally strong. ʽDear Eloiseʼ, in particular, is an excellent showcase of the band's dual nature: the intro / outro section, delivered by Nash in a slow, reflective, Paul Simonesque manner, surprisingly contrasts with the far more traditionally upbeat, 100%-Hollies main body of the song, but the two sections are masterfully seamed together in the form of a half-manipulative, half-triumphant letter to an ima­ginary potential love interest. While this is probably as far as they are capable of going in terms of compositional complexity, the quantum jump from the trippy sonic-splitting "could be the best thing that's happened to me" to the lively "writing a letter to make you feel better" is, I think, one of the band's most exciting musical moments on tape.

From there on, the sound is always pleasing, almost always tasteful, and almost always humbly targeted at cautious heart-warming rather than energetic jolting. The obligatory detour into the world of sitars and coffee table mysticism (ʽMakerʼ) is really just a gentle, monotonous folk ballad masquerading as an epiphany, but at least Nash handles his fantasy worlds with less crude­ness than Hicks, not being as eager to mistake his audiences for 5-year old kids. ʽWishyouawishʼ is, stylistically, the illegitimate offspring of Simon & Garfunkel's ʽ59th Street Bridge Songʼ (there are even lyrical influences, from "I got no deeds to do, no promises to keep" to "I got no cares in my mind, got no place to go"), but with a barely detectable British musical twist to it, making it a nice intellectual puzzle to compare the two.

And that's the way it works on the whole: Butterfly makes a series of light hops between the trains of psychedelic temptation and British homely coziness — you may be invited to ʽTry Itʼ (because "it's beautiful, seeing all the colors of the rainbow"), and then, soon afterwards, to ʽStep Insideʼ so that "we'll have tea and crumpets toasted by the fireside". ʽCharlie And Fredʼ are a local ragman and his horse, living in a hovel (on the other side of Penny Lane?), but both of them probably merge into cosmic soup whenever "I'm so high up I touch the sky" (ʽElevated Observations?ʼ). The two sides are hardly mutually exclusive, no more than a nice crumpet would be incompatible with an LSD tablet; and since at the heart of this music they preserve the usual strong sides of The Hollies — melodic hooks and powerhouse vocal harmonies — there are very few causes for annoyance about inept intrusions onto somebody else's turf.

I could, in fact, build up a pretty strong case for Butterfly representing the peak of Graham Nash's artistic potential. Later on, his collaboration with Crosby and Stills challenged him to up the ante when it came to songwriting, leading to elements of uncomfortable preachiness and insincere psychological depth, when in fact the man was always at his best working in a «fluffy» environment — without any offensive or condescending connotations. His control of Butterfly could signify a new beginning for The Hollies, where they could retain their mastery of old school harmony-based pop hooks while at the same time combining them with new musical ideas and imbuing them with watered-down, but childishly seductive psychedelic or social content. Unfortunately, this was not to be, and while the band's future story would still have its moments of brilliance, they would never again make another record of such quality. Thumbs up.


Saturday, December 9, 2017

Accept: The Rise Of Chaos

ACCEPT: THE RISE OF CHAOS (2017)

1) Die By The Sword; 2) Hole In The Head; 3) The Rise Of Chaos; 4) Koolaid; 5) No Regrets; 6) Analog Man; 7) What's Done Is Done; 8) Worlds Colliding; 9) Carry The Weight; 10) Race To Extinction.

Yes, it is that season again — the rise of chaos, where everybody drinks too much Koolaid with no regrets, leading to worlds colliding where people race to extinction, dying by the sword with holes in their heads. And this means another Accept album that sounds just like any Accept album since Blood Of The Nations, just as the rise of chaos circa 2017 looks just like any other rise of chaos at any given point in the life of human civilization.

There is absolutely no point in discussing the music here; all I can say is that there are no expe­riments with the sound whatsoever — all the songs differ from each other strictly in terms of tempo — and that not a single riff has struck me as being particularly outstanding, though, to be fair, Hoffmann is still spending time trying to come up with new ones: they simply all end up sounding like variations on the old ones. The only thing that makes this less of a problem than it was on Blind Rage is that the album is notably shorter: ten new songs is all she wrote, and, frankly, there is no need for an Accept album to ever be longer than 45 minutes, unless your casual adrenaline supply exceeds everybody else's.

The lyrical content, while trivial, is another matter: more than ever before, The Rise Of Chaos sounds like a wholesome concept album about the sordid state of things in the world at large — a problem that has always stayed relevant for Accept, but now more than ever, as they grow old and, consecutively, more and more bitter and skeptical about the piss-poor progress of humanity. Clearly, this should endear their attitude to my own heart, as I also grow older and more bitter and skeptical about the same things, but they just regularly go overboard with this thing, nowhere more so than on ʽAnalog Manʼ, where part of the blame on the overall moral decay is laid on digital technologies ("I was born in a cave, when stereo was all the rage... now there's flat screens in 3D, my cell phone's smarter than me, I can't keep up, my brains are beginning to burn"). You know you've really crossed over into bizarre territory when the familiar gang choruses of DOGS ON LEAAADS! and BALLS TO THE WALL! are replaced with UPDATE AND DOWNLOAD!, and silly diatribes like that do a poor service to Accept's general stand on human issues.

On the other side of the equation there's ʽKoolaidʼ, a welcome historical reminder of the 1978 Jim Jones nightmare as an allegory for today's problems with mass brainwashing — Tornillo's admo­nition of "don't drink the Koolaid, no matter what the preacher says!" truly deserves his highest notes, and while I could certainly live without a detailed account of the events in the verses (then again, perhaps a brief history lesson is good for Accept fans), this is the only song on the album that slightly transcends the state of generic ranting and raving, just because they happened to single out a pretty damn good analogy for modern times.

Other than that, Rise Of Chaos simply ticks off three more years of Accept's longevity: given that Hoffmann has only just turned 58, and that Mark Tornillo, though somewhat older, is still going very strong as a vocalist (and, cynically, is expendable anyway), this is probably far from the last Accept album in the making, unless, of course, they happen to be true about the ʽRace To Extinc­tionʼ, and we're all drinking Koolaid over the next three years. With this in mind, I am going straight ahead to update and upload, adding my own two cents to the downfall of humanity.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Chelsea Wolfe: Unknown Rooms

CHELSEA WOLFE: UNKNOWN ROOMS (2012)

1) Flatlands; 2) The Way We Used To; 3) Spinning Centers; 4) Appalachia; 5) I Died With You; 6) Boyfriend; 7) Our Work Was Good; 8) Hyper Oz; 9) Sunstorm.

Subtitled A Collection Of Acoustic Songs, probably to save herself from unnecessary negative emotions on the part of all the Roadburn-going metalheads, this is a short (less than half an hour long) EP collecting several songs that had mostly been written and recorded over the previous years and spent time circulating in demo form on the Web — this time, however, professionally re-recorded and brought to a certain degree of completion. This is Chelsea Wolfe's sad, tender, and dreamy side, as she comes to you in the spiritual form of your deceased lover and populates your dreams with visions of mournful, ethereal beauty, in whisps and whispers. Consequently, you don't really get to experience the whole potential of this album until you have laid your partner in her grave — a mere pathetic break-up probably won't do as a substitute.

On a less grand scale of experience, I could probably enjoy the album more if the songs were a bit more diverse or a bit less formless — but since it is precisely the point that they should all sound alike and that they should all make a point of their ghostliness rather than their shapeliness, this means that I could never enjoy the album more than I currently do, which is not a lot. This dreamy sound, mostly consisting of slowly, lethargically picked acoustic guitar and multi-tracked «phantom» backing vocals, has not been invented by Chelsea Wolfe and has not been perfected by her. There is not a lot of lyrical or musical depth or complexity, either, and the best thing I can say, once again, is that this is still better than Lana del Rey, because this is a very direct approach, lacking meticulous commercial calculation. Despite the monotonousness, Unknown Rooms fails to irritate — it does not position itself as some sort of grand, contemporary-important statement on love and death, rather as a series of hushed, muted, impressionistic vignettes on the matter that you can take or leave. This humility is almost seductive; if only there was something else!

Unfortunately, for me there have been no moments here that could warrant a strong emotional connection — not that I'd been expecting one, given the near-impossibility of writing a stripped down, minimalistic, deeply emotionally resonant acoustic song in 2012, particularly from the likes of Chelsea Wolfe, but then again, it's not as if she did not have any memorable ballads under her belt: ʽHalfsleeperʼ immediately comes to mind, but perhaps the level of ʽHalfsleeperʼ was considered too tense and aching for this record? Here, the only song that even begins to approach the level of «tense» is the closing ʽSunstormʼ, and only because its melody is a two-chord piano pattern that she bashes out with jarring force and robotic precision, accompanying it with the mantra "I remember everything you said" as if she herself were trying to hammer the "every­thing" in question inside her head. Still does not make me remember the song when it's over.

Ultimately, perhaps, the record's best and most defining moment is at the very beginning, when she sings "I never cared about money and all its friends / I want flatlands / I want simplicity". This sounds honest and convincing, and is sufficient to pardon the lack of interesting and original ideas throughout the album — honestly, makes her quite likeable as a person, I guess. But not all likeable persons can generate magic, and if the likeable person bravely complicates the task by limiting herself to an acoustic guitar and wispy background atmospherics, chances are even smaller. Probably would work fine as background music to re-reading Wuthering Heights, though.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

The Chameleons: This Never Ending Now

THE CHAMELEONS: THIS NEVER ENDING NOW (2002)

1) The Fan And The Bellows; 2) Tears; 3) Intrigue In Tangiers; 4) Is It Any Wonder?; 5) Seriocity; 6) Swamp Thing; 7) All Around; 8) Second Skin; 9) Home Is Where The Heart Is; 10) View From A Hill; 11) Moonage Daydream.

One album can be just an accident, but two constitute a tendency: I may just be right in my sus­picions that The Chameleons actually did not think much of the production on their original albums themselves — so here you have another big bunch of acoustically based re-recordings,  mostly of tunes from the band's «softer» albums, but not necessarily so: the record opens with ʽThe Fan And The Bellowsʼ, energetically driven forward by the percussion of the now-returning John Lever, but otherwise completely dependent on acoustic rhythm and lead guitars. Also, there are two alternate versions of songs from Why Call It Anything? (ʽAll Aroundʼ seems to just be an alternate mix of the original; ʽMiracles And Wondersʼ is genuinely converted to acoustic mode and detached from its lengthy ambient coda); ʽIs It Any Wonder?ʼ, re-recorded from a rare original off their 1990 EP Tony Fletched Walked On Water; and an out-of-the-blue cover of Bowie's ʽMoonage Daydreamʼ because... because they like David Bowie.

Second time around, though, this is not nearly as touching as the effort they made with Strip. The approach is no longer so fresh and unpredictable; more importantly, the songs themselves were not too good to start with — I mean, ʽView From A Hillʼ was really just a drawn-out mood piece to finish Script Of The Bridge on a solemn note, and like it or not, it was one of the few songs where the production, with its multiple layers of keyboards and guitars, really made sense; here, it is largely reduced to some interminable chuggy acoustic plunking and light-solemn vocal harmonies that would fit in better on, say, an AIR album than here. Likewise, the one good thing that I remembered about ʽSwamp Songʼ was its slightly spooky froggish guitar croaking; here, it is transformed into acoustic country-blues that is about as exciting as any similar acoustic number on a Bonnie Raitt or a Sheryl Crow record.

One song where the acoustic difference really makes a great difference is ʽSecond Skinʼ, whose formerly distant romantic electric guitar riff, transposed to the acoustic setting, has gained in volume and clarity — yet I am not so sure if the new approach is better, because the distant original was more «spaced-out», reaching out to you like some distant star, or a comet swooshing by. That spaced-out atmosphere is only reconstructed by the band at the very end, once they launch into their version of ʽMoonage Daydreamʼ — still more of a humble tribute to the creator than a daring reinvention, but with an interesting take on the solo part (no Ronson-esque alien fireworks, more like a quiet post-rock dissolution of electric current). Bad news is, ʽMoonage Daydreamʼ alone is still better than all the Chameleons songs put together, so that on my second listen I could not wait for all that stuff to end so that Mark Burgess, too, could declare himself an alligator. Which, to be frank, he never really was.

Considering that The Chameleons broke up once again soon after this record's release, never re­convened for another big project in the next fifteen years, and that, as of now, John Lever is dead and buried, it is a safe bet that This Never Ending Now has fulfilled its promise and become the last (semi-)original Chameleons release we will ever see (although Lever and Fielding did make another album together two years before Lever's demise). A bit sad, since Why Call It Anything? did show promise and proved that the band members' talents survived into the 21st century; then again, with all this focus on reinventing their legacy, they might not really have had it in them to create new material on a regular basis. In any case, these acoustic albums are a decent last gift for those of their fans who, together with the band, had outgrown the excesses of Eighties' techno­philia and regained a taste for less synthetic-sounding instrumentation — and, perhaps, a chance for those of their fans who have not outgrown it... to reconsider and repent.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Chicago: Chicago IV - At Carnegie Hall

CHICAGO: CHICAGO IV - AT CARNEGIE HALL (1971)

1) In The Country; 2) Fancy Colours; 3) Free Form Intro; 4) Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?; 5) South California Purples; 6) Questions 67 And 68; 7) Sing A Mean Tune Kid; 8) Beginnings; 9) It Better End Soon; 10) Introduction; 11) Mother; 12) Lowdown; 13) Flight 602; 14) Motorboat To Mars; 15) Free; 16) Where Do We Go From Here; 17) I Don't Want Your Money; 18) Happy 'Cause I'm Going Home; 19) Ballet For A Girl In Buchannon; 20) A Song For Richard And His Friends; 21) 25 Or 6 To 4; 22) I'm A Man.

«How do you get to Carnegie Hall?» «Fairly easy, if you're from Chicago». Okay, that wasn't very good, but you are not expected to retain a particularly sharp sense of humor, having just sat through 2 hours and 48 minutes of live performances from a band that used to specialize in double LPs. I mean, for some reason, whenever anybody mentions «Seventies' excess», the usual stuff that crops up in satirical discussions are triple live LPs by Yes or Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but how about this: a quadruple live album, originally released in a boxset so large, you had to commission a van to drive it home? Definitely not for workless teenagers, this band.

Come to think of it, it does make sense that three double studio LPs in a row could only be fol­lowed by a mammoth of a live performance — not only does this package include every single moment of the show, tune-ups and lengthy applause periods and all relevant banter comprised, but it is hardly coincidental that the recordings were taken from Chicago's Carnegie Hall gig: no Fillmore West or Fillmore East for these guys, they had to make a point by playing America's single most celebrated musical venue, even if, as they eventually found, it was not very well suited for amplified electric performances in the first place. Also, the uniformity is somewhat of a setup, since the tracks were really chosen from a week-long series of gigs at the same place; the 2005 Rhino CD release respects that explicitly, with an extra disc of bonus tracks, some of them overlapping with the original selections (another ʽSouth California Purplesʼ, for instance).

Of course, six LP's worth of material cannot be crammed into the space of eight sides (not to mention that some of the original tracks are predictably stretched out into jam mode), so Chicago IV omits some of the material — the classical-influenced suites, for instance, for which they'd need additional budget for an orchestra, or some of their least accessible avantgarde pieces like ʽFree Form Guitarʼ (although there is some free form guitar gratuitously added by Terry in some spots). But pretty much everything that mattered on their first three albums is all here, and now you have a chance to witness whether that big, flashy, vivacious Chicago sound could be repro­duced on stage without losing any of its edges or colors.

It can, of course, be safely predicted that it could; and since Chicago was very much a pop group at heart, it could also be safely predicted that the music would not be gaining any extra or alter­nate edges or colors. True enough, some of the songs are stretched out so that we could see the great Chicago shake the world down with their improvisational talent — ʽSouth California Purplesʼ, for instance, once its main heavy-strolling body is exhausted, becomes a lengthy funky / bluesy jam with Kath at his best. But overall, if there is a single reason to prefer the guitar-heavy tracks on this live album to their studio originals, it should probably be uncovered in the area of guitar tone rather than guitar notes: without the studio processings, Kath's sound, embellished only by the use of an occasional wah-wah pedal, is rawer and snappier, appealing to the rocker side of the average Chicago fan — that is, provided the average Chicago fan does actually have a rocker side, and gravitates towards ʽ25 Or 6 To 4ʼ rather than ʽColour My Worldʼ.

Perhaps subsequent listens might uncover subtle additional nuances, but good luck sitting through a quadruple live Chicago album once, let alone twice or more, and I am certainly not going to spend three more hours of my time painfully thinking of what to say. All I can offer now is The Layman Opinion — it sounds good, none of the songs are butchered, the brass section, guitars, and keyboards mesh and mix as good as in any qualified prog band's performance, and, oh yes, there is exactly one song here that you will not find anywhere else, and it is interesting: ʽA Song For Richard And His Friendsʼ is more than just an anti-Nixon political satire, it is a rather crazy mix of jazz, blues, vaudeville, and avantgarde that Frank Zappa himself might have approved. Most likely, it never appeared on any of their studio albums due to political censorship issues, but it is also far more musically daring than anything on Chicago III — I particularly like the syn­thesis of Kath's ʽfree-form guitarʼ, Hendrix-style, with Zappa-like carnivalesque jazz elements. Not that President Nixon would have been in any way endangered by this artistic statement, but at least its musical challenge ensures that it might still sound exciting to your ears when nobody remembers anything about Nixon any more.

Other than that, what else is there to say? Oh yes, there have been frequent complaints about the poor sound quality of the original tapes — but I am listening to the original CD release (not even the Rhino remasters from 2005) and do not see any particularly dreadful problems: instrument separation is good, so that, for instance, I can easily concentrate on either Kath's finger-flashing guitar «noodling», Cetera's free-flowing bass, Lamm's quiet keyboards, or Seraphine's maniacal drumming during the jam section of ʽSing A Mean Tune Kidʼ without any problems (by the way, this is one instrumental section that has been almost completely redone compared to the studio version — made much more jazzy rather than bluesy). Pankow, allegedly, hated the brass sound, saying that the horns ended up sounding like kazoos, but if what he means is a tiny smudgeon of distortion, I couldn't even say that it detracts from the performance; maybe, on the contrary, it gives things a sharper edge?.. ah, whatever. Audiophiles will, no doubt, prefer the later Live In Japan — an album that, disgracefully, even lacks its own number in the Chicago catalog! — but the setlist on that one is shorter and weaker. At the very least, the plus side of this eight-sided monster is that you can always make your own playlist. Want a kick-ass Chicago? Throw out the wussy suites. Want a pop-style Chicago? Discard the long guitar-based jams. Want to focus on the odd aspects of Chicago? Umm... play ʽA Song For Richardʼ on repeat for 2 hours and 48 minutes. Or edit out everything except the stage banter. It's your choice — you are the people, and Chicago have always been a people's band, for better or for worse.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Chambers Brothers: Shout!

THE CHAMBERS BROTHERS: SHOUT! (1968)

1) Johnny B. Goode; 2) Blues Get Off My Shoulder; 3) I Got It; 4) Shout; 5) There She Goes; 6) Seventeen; 7) Pretty Girls; 8) Rained The Day You Left; 9) So Fine; 10) Love Me Like The Rain.

In the mid-to-late Sixties, the Chambers Brothers had pretty much two parallel careers going on: the adapt-to-new-reality «psychedelic» one, and a more traditional one — supported by their old label, Vault Records, who apparently had so much material in stock and so much free time on their hands that they could allow themselves to issue at least one «new» album per year without anybody really giving a damn. Since I assume that all of them were released without the artist's consent, hearing them is a strictly completist affair, and one must always be careful when going through the Brothers' discography: at the very least, remember to look at the label before going all indignant about the subpar quality of the material and the shitty quality of the recording, like I just went for a brief while before composing myself and remembering to do just that.

In this case, fortunately, the results are not all bad, but still messy. One side is given over to live recordings, probably from 1965-66, the other side consists of studio outtakes (including, for instance, a brief and concise take on ʽSo Fineʼ that is overall more listenable than the pointlessly endless version on Now!). The live side starts out quite inauspiciously, with a mediocre version of ʽJohnny B. Goodeʼ that lacks true rock'n'roll excitement and seems to think that replacing Chuck Berry's lead guitar playing with Mississippi-style harmonica might be a good idea. But things pick up later, with a convincing slow blues number (ʽBlues Get Off My Shoulderʼ — here, the harmonica fits in just fine with the heavy, depressing piano chords) and an energetic gospel / R&B medley of ʽI Got Itʼ and ʽShout!ʼ — the latter part is particularly interesting, since the pre­dictable yeah-yeah-yeah rave style here is mixed with the band's first attempts at going psyche­delic: they throw in a sharply distorted, hallucinatory lead guitar part with echo and delay effects, inconspicuosly transforming the performance from a vocal-driven chant into an acid jam, some­thing that neither The Yardbirds nor The Who ever really tried at their early shows (The Who sometimes came close, but they preferred to carry the music away into the realms of aggression and chaos, rather than psychedelic tripping).

The studio side is cleaner, louder, but to a large degree expendable: ʽThere She Goesʼ is a Stones-style blues rocker that is totally let down by a criminally flabby rhythm section (think ʽNow I've Got A Witnessʼ with severely loosened screws), ʽSeventeenʼ is slow dark blues that used to be done far better by Otis Rush (cool gravekeeper falsetto backing vocals, though), ʽPretty Girlsʼ is second-rate Isley Brothers, and ʽRained The Day You Leftʼ is third-rate Byrds — though, you have to admit this, having all these styles enacted by the same bunch of those former country bumpkins is quite a feat by itself. The only salvageable track here is the lovely ʽLove Me Like The Rainʼ, an original folk ballad played and recorded with exquisite tenderness, and also some­what unusual in its combination of gentle folk chord picking and low-pitched lead vocals (typi­cally, you associate The Byrds or The Searchers with this kind of sound). However, this is actually an alternate version — a much better produced one can be found as a bonus track on The Time Has Come, implying that Columbia ultimately got the better side of the deal.

Still, while this was clearly an obsolete release for 1968, out of the two Chambers Brothers albums that came out this year I would rate Shout! as the superior one — with the exception of ʽJohnny B. Goodeʼ, nothing here seems particularly irritating. This was their usual shtick: trying to prove to the world that they could do passable imitations of 'em all, and it is a more honorable shtick, I believe, than milking the exact same «Artistic Formula» a second time. In other words, mediocre music that accepts its own mediocrity is preferable to mediocre music that pretends to be something more than what it really is. Plus, that version of ʽShoutʼ is actually worth hearing just for the sake of novelty.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Allen Toussaint: Mr. Mardi Gras

ALLEN TOUSSAINT: MR. MARDI GRAS (1987)

1) Mr. Mardi Gras; 2) Fat Tuesday; 3) I Know You Mardi Gras; 4) Come To The Mardi Gras; 5) I Love A Carnival Ball; 6) The Mighty Mighty Chief; 7) Long Live The King; 8) Lead Me To The Dance Floor.

If just a few more people knew about the existence of the album, chances are it would be in a very good position to make it to many of those «worst ever» record lists that people sometimes rifle through out of boredom. Problem is, while it definitely does exist (unless my own ears deceive me or something), it is so rare that it is not even found in all of Toussaint's discographies. All I know is that it was released on «Cayenne Records», presumably Toussaint's own label that never produced any other piece of product; never made it to CD format; but is at least available as a digital download today, for completist idiots like myself.

No idea about how it came to life, who played on it, how the hell did Allen, after a decade of staying away from original material, suddenly decide to make a «concept album» about the cele­bration of Fat Tuesday, and, most importantly, why did he decide that the album had to be done the trendy modern way. For all I know, this was a temporary ridiculous aberration of the mind: Mr. Mardi Gras does not just sound horrible, it also sounds absolutely nothing like any of the records he made in the Seventies (even Motion is miles ahead), and absolutely nothing like any of the records he would make during his Nineties comeback.

Simply put, this is a bunch of Mardi Gras-themed (as if this wasn't already obvious just by looking at the song titles) pop tunes whose main point is to sound as proverbially Eighties as possible. Electronic drums, cheap Casios, and synthesized poppin' bass are all over the place, and when combined with the forced simple-stupid cheerful vibe, the end result is smatteringly vulgar and crass. It's like, you know, every single cliché about New Orleanian carnival music crammed together and then smeared with electronics that make certain arcade machines from the same time sound positively luxurious in comparison. Every now and then, some of Allen's own nice piano playing breaks through, accidentally, but for the most part, the horns are the only non-synthetic part of the scenery.

Perhaps in some alternate twisted universe, where robots hold their own Mardi Gras parties, having adapted them through machine learning, this record might have a higher chance of being recognized — and, well, as a pure, unadulterated novelty it may be worth hearing; at the very least, I should recognize that I have never ever heard anything like it. But once the novelty has worn off, it simply remains as a scarecrow, reminding us all that Fifties' survivors generally sucked even harder at adapting to Eighties' technology than Sixties' veterans — fortunately, few of them even tried. Thumbs down without further consideration.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Kinks: Something Else By The Kinks

THE KINKS: SOMETHING ELSE BY THE KINKS (1967)

1) David Watts; 2) Death Of A Clown; 3) Two Sisters; 4) No Return; 5) Harry Rag; 6) Tin Soldier Man; 7) Situation Vacant; 8) Love Me Till The Sun Shines; 9) Lazy Old Sun; 10) Afternoon Tea; 11) Funny Face; 12) End Of The Season; 13) Waterloo Sunset; 14*) Act Nice And Gentle; 15*) Autumn Almanac; 16*) Susannah's Still Alive; 17*) Wonderboy; 18*) Polly; 19*) Lincoln County; 20*) There's No Life Without Love; 21*) Lazy Old Sun (alternate take).

On a purely formal basis, the leap from Face To Face to Something Else is neither as huge or as unpredictable as the leap from Kink Kontroversy to Face To Face — this is, essentially, just Vol. 2 of Ray Davies' ongoing project on the «Personal History, Adventures, Experience and Observation of Select Members of the British Society (Which They Never Meant to Publish on Any Account, But Took Kind Advantage of Mr. Ray Davies to Do for Them)». Some of the more critical contemporary reviews actually latched on to that, complaining that Ray's passion had become an obsession, and that the Kinks were becoming boring and formulaic, instead of pushing forward and breaking the good old boundaries.

So why is it that, eventually, Something Else emerged as a critical darling, typically rated maybe half a notch below Village Green as the ultimate Kinks experience? The inclusion of ʽWaterloo Sunsetʼ, Ray's equivalent of ʽYesterdayʼ in the public conscious, has a lot do with it — but mostly, I guess, it is the tacit understanding that Something Else was the first Kinks album on which Ray's artistic vision is given to us without any signs of compromising. In 1966, he was still a pop songwriter, albeit a brilliant one — yet for each ʽSunny Afternoonʼ, there was still an ʽI'll Remember Youʼ, nice formulaic pop songs without a soul of their own. If Face To Face was their Rubber Soul, a brilliant record with certain elements that still tied the band to their some­what more constricted past (like ʽWaitʼ, etc.), then Something Else is their Revolver: a record where each and every song transcends mere «good» and heads straight for the upper levels of «revelatory» or, at least, «insightful».

In terms of stunning musical breakthroughs, it is hard to say in which precise spots Something Else hits anything like that. Apart from a little bossanova on ʽNo Returnʼ and maybe a bit of French pop influence on ʽEnd Of The Seasonʼ, Ray here is perfectly fine sticking to the same old sources of inspiration: a little pop, a little music hall and vaudeville, a shot of rhythm'n'blues to make sure the wolves still have their teeth intact, and a splash of the harpsichord to show that they are still committed to that baroque-pop spirit. From this point of view, the album is not really «something else!» with an exclamation sign, more like a humble, excusatory «just some­thing else» without demanding any unreasonably high expectations. The real task that Ray sets for himself has little to do with «blowing minds» by means of strange sounds never heard before, and everything to do with writing a percep­tive chronicle of everyday life in his native country — life as it happens to people who might never have even heard of the UFO Club — and presenting it in the format of catchy, easily acces­sible, and aurally friendly pop tunes.

So far, so good. But here is the true catch that separates Something Else (and its follow-ups) from oh so many pop-rock and roots-rock albums championing the underdog: believe it or not, it actually has a very distinct psychedelic flavor of its own, though it has nothing to do with the psychedelia of Sgt. Pepper, Piper, or Are You Experienced?. Because first and foremost, Ray Davies is not actually a chronicler: Ray Davies is a dreamer. Most of his best songs are dream tunes — fantasies that are grounded in reality, but twist it according to their creator's impulses, "I-wish-it-were-so" types of songs. "Wish I could be like David Watts", "living in a little tin wonderland", "as long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise", these are just the most obvious bits on this particular album. With the exception of just a few obvious downers such as ʽDead End Streetʼ, Ray seems to have sworn off thoroughly depressing songs forever — no matter how gloomy the reality, it is always within your mindpower to create a bubble of light in which you can safely deposit your conscience. This is the essence of Ray's unique vision, and Something Else is the first of several records on which it turns out to be fully realized.

What I mean is that ʽDavid Wattsʼ is a fun song whose continuous fa-fa-fa-fa's will probably stick in your head with the same ease as the Beatles' yeah yeah yeah's; but it is also more than a fun song — it is a song about "lying on your pillow at night", with echoes of today's vivacious school team performance still in your head, and fantasizing about what it would take to live somebody else's life. (Given that the real life David Watts, according to Ray's memoirs, was gay, some people offer a homoerotic interpretation to the song, but sexual themes are clearly not its main point — the protagonist does not wish to fuck David Watts, he wishes to be David Watts). Just think of the song's crude, monotonous, crazyass-pulsating bass/piano duet as a musical representation of one's wildly pulsating brain, still heavily adrenaline-charged from the day's events, and all of a sudden, ʽDavid Wattsʼ is no longer just a funny-silly novelty tune, but a masterful exercise in music psychology.

Fast forward a bit to ʽTin Soldier Manʼ, and the pattern repeats itself, except that this dream is not so much a wish fantasy as an impressionistic metaphor — portraying your routinely disciplined, punctual, petty-tyrannical neighbor as a living and breathing tin soldier, to the sounds of one of the catchiest and most carnivalesque military marches ever written in the land of Gilbert and Sul­livan. It is not a mean song, though: you may read your social criticism into it if you wish, but you may just as well look at it as a grown-up child's instinctive impression of the behavioral patterns of his curious neighbor. There is certainly nothing bitter or sardonic in the music, those bouncy, uplifting, toy-military chords that get your feet tapping (it is probably one of my own most-often-whistled melodies of all time, because how can you ever abstain?..): Ray is building up his own little collection of Pictures At An Exhibition, open for your own additional interpreta­tion: take pity on the tin soldier man, despise the tin soldier man, or simply take the time to tap your foot and admire him as an exotic exhibit.

Fast forward once again, to the very end, and the reason why everybody loves ʽWaterloo Sunsetʼ is because the whole song is a dream — or, at least, a piece of alternate reality that the hero has constructed for himself, completely blocking out those "millions of people swarming like flies 'round Waterloo underground" and fully concentrating on Terry and Julie instead (and still prefer­ring to admire them from afar rather than introducing himself directly into their lives). The usual focus of attention here is brother Dave's dense and juicy guitar tone, coming in colours every­where from your speakers; but for me, the chief hook of the song comes with Ray's rising to dreamy falsetto on the "but I don't... need no friends"  and "but I don't... feel afraid" mini-bridge: this is the part where quiet, peaceful observation is brilliantly resolved into some sort of inter­nalized spiritual orgasm — the protagonist being at peace with the world as long as the world does not bother him and lets him freely concentrate on select individual spots of beauty that he has chosen for himself. In a truly alternate reality where literature characters come to life and move freely across time, this would probably have been Boo Radley's favorite song.

Of course, Something Else also features plenty of songs where the outside observer seems to disappear, giving way to third-person narratives about peculiar types of situations: ʽTwo Sistersʼ, for instance, about a quiet and ambiguous rivalry between a housewife and a socialite, or ʽSitua­tion Vacantʼ, about how your mother-in-law can really spoil your day (indeed!). But even ʽTwo Sistersʼ sounds dreamy, with Nicky Hopkins' harpsichord melody taking your mind far away from the possible reality of the song — let alone the fact that the story of two sisters only serves as an allegory for two brothers (Ray and Dave), which is certainly not a fact that one is obliged to learn in order to enjoy the tune as a modern fairy tale (and, for that matter, don't the names Sylvilla and Percilla actually sound as if taken from something by Charles Perrault?). ʽSituation Vacantʼ is a harsher, harder-rocking little number with distinct bluesy overtones (still, even that does not prevent Hopkins from inserting a few extra baroque piano flourishes), but, hilariously, it is also the one song on the album that comes closest of them all to traditional psychedelia — you just have to watch for the coda and its combo of ghostly falsettos, buzzing lead guitars, and wobbly bass piano chords. It does not fit in all that well with the overall mood of the album, but a bit of unpredictable diversity never hurt a great record.

And what about brother Dave? He has a hard time living up to Ray's level, but at least he has the good sense to cautiously follow in his footsteps than insist on recording ferocious rock'n'roll and spoiling the party for good. ʽDeath Of A Clownʼ, the song that almost won him a solo career, fits in brilliantly with Ray's subject matter — not as dreamy and reclusive, given Dave's extroverted nature, but providing the picture gallery with another subtly painted character portrait (for some reason, «sad clown» imagery was really popular with British pop bands around 1966-67: the Hollies, for instance, had at least a couple of songs devoted to the same matter). ʽLove Me Till The Sun Shinesʼ and ʽFunny Faceʼ are nowhere near as catchy and sound inspired by Small Faces, but Dave is no Steve Marriott when it comes to belting, and the Kinks' rhythm section cannot hope to match that competition in terms of power and crunch, but at least both songs are still in a pop vein and do not detract from the overall mood. ʽFunny Faceʼ does stick out as a bit of a sore thumb in between the stylishly sentimental ʽAfternoon Teaʼ and ʽEnd Of The Seasonʼ, which is probably why my brain always tends to scratch it out of existence.

So much said and I have not even had the chance to extol the virtues of ʽHarry Ragʼ (ruffiest and gruffiest and funniest and catchiest ode to tobacco ever recorded!), or those of ʽLazy Old Sunʼ (another brave attempt at hammock-style psychedelia), or the decidedly uncatchy, but charming bossanova experiment of ʽNo Returnʼ — and then there are the bonus tracks on the CD edition, representing con­temporary A- and B-sides, all of which are treasurable one way or the other, and most of which would legitimately fit in the same picture gallery. Of these, it is impossible not to say a few words about ʽAutumn Almanacʼ, a solid contender for the most accomplished and, well, fundamental song Ray ever wrote — not only is it technically brilliant, combining a catchy chorus with a never-ending stream of fluctuating-alternating verse melodies that flow in and out of each other more smoothly than rivulets, but it's got Ray's entire emotional palette (tenderness, humor, sympathy, humility, sadness, nostalgia — everything but anger and bitterness, which he was moving away from at the time) flashing across your brain in three minutes time: submit to it properly and it might just leave you a better person by the end, or at least make you think more fondly of the autumnal season. There's more ideas and feelings contained in that one pop song than in an entire pop album by the average pop artist — Ray sure as hell ain't greedy with his hooks, and the result is a masterpiece that always sounds fresh and exciting, no matter how many times I hear it. "This is my street and I'm never gonna leave it", in particular, despite the soft and feeble delivery, is as decisive and definitive a statement as any punk slogan ever voiced.

That ʽAutumn Almanacʼ became the last Kinks single until ʽLolaʼ to hip the Top 10, and that Something Else became their last album ever to chart at all in their native homeland is at the same time understandable and bewildering — understandable because people like loud, flashy, egotistical thingies that help them tickle their pride or rally their resources, but bewildering because while he was still in his prime, Ray never betrayed the cause of the well-crafted pop hook (or a whole smattering of those) in favor of his lyrical portraits or sentimental mood swings. With the exception of ʽNo Returnʼ (too jazzy) and ʽFunny Faceʼ (too Davey), I can still vividly remember how each song here goes without listening to the album for years — and the same goes for vaudevillian singles like ʽWonderboyʼ, allegedly well-loved by John Lennon (it does have a bit of the «positive John» mood in it) but despised by the record-buying public back in early 1968, though, frankly, it is just not as anthemic as ʽHey Judeʼ, but it also teaches you to love life and take it as it comes in memorable verses and choruses. Perhaps they should have attached a four-minute epic coda of la-la-la's at the end?..

Anyway, fortunately, by the 21st century the reputation of the album — and post-ʽSunny After­noonʼ Kinks in general — has recovered so well that there is no sense defending it; there is only sense in trying to understand and interpret it to the best of one's ability, and explain why it is one of the most intelligent and emotional artistic representations of one person's inner world in 1967. There are psychological corners explored here that you won't find on Sgt. Pepper, or on Smile, or on any other of those albums with their big guns, blasting away at the sun, while Ray Davies here is just fussing around with his microscope. And, of course, this does not make Something Else better than any of those albums — it is simply needed to round out and complete the picture of 1967 as one of the most awesome years in popular music. "Lazy old sun, what have you done to summertime?" is the Kinks' perfect response to the Summer of Love; and, for what it's worth, the album came out on September 15, opening Ray's personal Autumn of Sympathy, which is every bit as deserving of its own thumbs up.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Blood Orange: Coastal Grooves

BLOOD ORANGE: COASTAL GROOVES (2011)

1) Forget It; 2) Sutphin Boulevard; 3) I'm Sorry We Lied; 4) Can We Go Inside Now?; 5) S'cooled; 6) Complete Failure; 7) Instantly Blank (The Goodness); 8) The Complete Knock; 9) Are You Sure You're Really Busy?; 10) Champagne Coast.

British whiz kid Devonté Hynes is a man of many faces — well, two or three at least — but since he prefers to thoroughly separate these faces into individual personae, we will respect his decision and treat Coastal Grooves as the fresh debut album by Blood Orange, an artistic entity whose unstated purpose is to combine love for Eighties' pop with a passion for R&B and prove that the results might be of interest to people in the 2010s. Well, actually, the second part of the purpose is not that difficult, given how many people there are in the 2010s and how just about anything is of interest to at least some of them in the 2010s. The first part is where it gets trickier.

Before he was Blood Orange, Dev Hynes was Lightspeed Champion for a couple of years, during which he explored alt-folk, alt-rock, and various other alt-alt directions — maybe not with the speed of light, but with enough ambition to build up a bit of reputation. With this rebirth, and an album whose title has the word ʽgrooveʼ in it, he is looking for answers to a completely different type of question: namely, what would it sound like if Prince and Ric Ocasek formed their own band and pooled their talents fifty-fifty? Except, that is, that all their songs would be written and recorded by a guy from Ilford, East London who had not even been born yet when Purple Rain and Heartbeat City were rockin' the suburbs.

This is precisely the catch: the idea itself sounds intriguing on paper, but Dev Hynes, at least in the ever so humble opinion of this particular reviewer, does not have the talent to convert that theoretical bit of intrigue into awesome practical realization. He diligently applies Prince's one-man band principle, playing most of the instruments himself (although there are additional bass players and percussionists on some of the tracks), and his technical mastery of funky grooves and scratchy New Wave rhythms, as well as the ability to combine both within a single track, is undeniable, but Coastal Grooves is basically a one-trick exercise. Its entire point is being done on the very first track, ʽForget Itʼ — fast, punchy rhythm track; melodic lead guitar; repetitive and catchy chorus hook; half-carnal, half-spiritual atmosphere; and a certain polite shyness, due to which the line "I am not your saviour, baby girl" comes across not in a sneery "it ain't me babe" kind of way, and definitely not in a cocky, Prince-like style, but rather well adjusted for the age in which intelligent British kids do not want to alienate their intelligent female fans with unnecessary crudeness. It is a nice, polite, tastefully performed, and not tremendously exciting song that also showcases his talents as a lead guitar player (there's a rather unexpected «harsh» break midway through that is somewhat reminiscent of Adrian Belew's pop albums).

This in itself is not a problem; the problem is that the same formula is applied for the other nine tracks — and regardless of whether the tempo is a bit slower or faster, the melody a bit darker or a bit lighter, the basic mood is always the same. Coastal Grooves is a record for nostalgically oriented romantics, not deep enough to offer you a groundbreaking perspective on the issue of one-night stands and/or long term relationships, and not shallow enough to be ridiculously offen­sive or refreshingly humorous. Hynes delivers all the lyrics in a slightly whiny, ever so vulnerable near-falsetto (allegedly this was a forced change from his earlier style due to a throat operation he had) that fits this neo-New Romantic vibe perfectly, but can get annoying fairly quickly, because ultimately this is just a well-tuned mating call, and ten unsatisfied mating calls in a row can give the impression of... well, let's call it an «inefficiently functioning bit of genetic code». And even his guitar playing often comes across as somewhat under-realized: many of the songs contain snippets of potentially great riffs and embryonic ideas of perfectly constructed guitar solos, but it is almost as if he is too afraid of being accused of unsuccessfully ripping off Prince — in the end, he never really gives us a chance to see if he truly is as good as Prince or not. (Probably not, but I get so desperate by the time the record ends that I'd rather hear a bad take on a Prince-style guitar solo than a good take on a «Prince-in-the-womb» guitar solo).

I do not want to sound at all like an insensitive dude from a distant age, mind you, but while the technical aspects of the record are impressive, its vibe ultimately gets lost on me — like on that last song, ʽChampagne Coastʼ, whose repetitive chorus of "come to my bedroom, come to my bedroom" basically sounds like he is a reclusive kid inviting a friend to show him a collection of Star Wars action figures, rather than, er, uhm, you know. Perhaps it is simply too much of a chal­lenge these days to make songs that would be sexy and polite, rather than «sexist», at the same time. Also, perhaps the presence of additional musicians would not have hurt, either: I feel that there might be a terrific, tense, heart-tearing, sweaty groove concealed in the core of ʽThe Com­plete Knockʼ, but all the song does is loop the same potentially cool call-and-answer guitar figure for five minutes, without properly resolving it into anything cooler.

This is not to say I did not enjoy this, or, for that matter, tip my hat to the decidedly anti-main­stream nature of the record, which uses electronic instruments very sparingly and places primary emphasis on Eighties-style guitar playing. On his subsequent albums, Hynes would move far closer to that mainstream, which makes Coastal Grooves sort of outstanding at least within his own small catalog — I could, in fact, easily see a certain category of fans abandoning him after Cupid Deluxe while still clinging to Grooves as a tighter, hotter, and bolder artistic statement. Yet even such a verdict is not really saying all that much.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Chelsea Wolfe: Live At Roadburn

CHELSEA WOLFE: LIVE AT ROADBURN (2012)

1) Halfsleeper; 2) Movie Screen; 3) Demons; 4) Mer; 5) Tracks; 6) Noorus; 7) Moses; 8) Pale On Pale.

This short, almost EP-sized, limited edition, vinyl-only live album, recorded April 12, 2012 at the Roadburn rock festival in the Netherlands — an event that typically features nothing but authen­tic hard'n'heavy, so you can probably tell that she is being perfectly serious about it when saying "hello Roadburn, thanks for having us!" — anyway, this album, for all purposes, should be con­sidered a thoroughly redundant entry in the catalog, for dedicated fans only, if not for one reason: all of the songs here, and I really mean all of them, sound decidedly better than their studio counterparts. In fact, if you want to get a good introduction to what «early» or «classic» Chelsea Wolfe is all about, I strongly recommend Live At Roadburn over Apocalypse, with which it shares no fewer than six out of its eight tracks (the other two are from The Grime).

The reason for this is short and simple: while Chelsea and her band make relatively few adjust­ments to their material in the live setting, all the songs are inavoidably stripped of the extra production gimmicks that she seasons them with in the studio, so as to achieve a «darker», «more mysterious», «more psychedelic» effect. In particular, her vocals here are clean, sharp, and shrill, rather than driven through the usual wall of reverbs and echoes — well, there are still a few distor­tion effects on the mike here and there, perhaps achieved through simple amp overdriving, but the effort is always on making her singing audible rather than draping it in all sorts of sonic cobwebs. Ditto for the instruments: guitar and bass are not muffled as they usually are, but actually grunt and growl like living beings. ʽNoorusʼ in particular, originally recorded while the artist was still alleged to the lo-fi aesthetics, annihilates the studio version; but even the tracks from Apocalypse all improve on their counterparts.

The moral of this story is simple: deep in her heart, Chelsea Wolfe is more of a Patti Smith / Siouxsie Sioux person, best able to express herself with minimal means — strong voice and dark guitar — but not particularly apt when it comes to concocting complex, multi-layered atmo­spheres. In addition, the rawness and energy of the live performance helps make up for the deri­vative and not-too-imaginative character of the songs, at least as far as I can tell from the readings on my personal irrit-o-meter when it comes to comparing live and studio takes. I'd even go as far as to call this long acoustic version of ʽHalfsleeperʼ that opens the record very pretty, if not down­right mesmerizing in places — sure, it lacks the multi-tracked vocals and subdued ghostly harmonies of the original, but it also sounds so much more sharp and focused (there is also an extra atmospheric, post-rockish coda that is largely expendable, but does not ruin the overall im­pression of the song).

Granted, none of this makes out of Chelsea Wolfe a particularly amazing live performer: it is mainly an issue of getting her shitty studio ideas out of the way than a matter of mind-blowing rearrangements on the stage. But every so-so songwriter deserves a chance to elevate his or her songwriting to a higher level with whatever lies at hand — and it is good to know that Chelsea Wolfe at least has the benefit of a tight, tense, unmediated live show to prove her worth. I give the record a thumbs up and strongly encourage everybody to choose it over Apokalypsis, if you lack the means to own both.